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passage ponderings ~ an email

Posted by on May 27, 2015

May 2014

The following is an email I sent after 19 days at sea and a safe arrival to the Australs.

Subject: Passage Ponderings

Date: 22 May 2014 02:33:14 -0000
From: KF4IVI
Date: 2014/05/22 02:33:16

Hi all,

Now that we are safely at anchor, I’ll spill my guts about it all. Sorry if it’s a bit wordy, but I began writing this while we were underway. It’s grown quite a bit since, and I’ve wondered if I should even bother sending it. But why not? So, have a seat, & maybe a drink, and have a read! And, in case I lose you before the end . . . we owe a big THANK YOU to our onshore weather/radio team, Dad & Bob, and another big THANK YOU for all of you who worried & prayed for us. It’s a great comfort knowing we have all of you there for us.

When we first realized that we were going to have to do a passage from NZ to the Australs, I cringed. After having been relatively stationary for 5 months, the idea of doing a 2200 mile passage right from the start was far from appealing. There was little choice, and we were going to have to bite the bullet.

As always, I began researching the weather patterns and talking to people who had knowledge of this part of the world’s oceans. The results started making me quite nervous. Every blog post I read described nasty weather and seas, resulting in a cold, wet and prolonged passages. Every person I remember meeting in French Polynesia who had come that way had described it as a horrible passage. Every person I spoke to or emailed, replied with remarks such as, good luck, that’s a rough one, has a catamaran ever made that trip? or the look on their faces said it all.

The main school of thought for traveling northeast out of NZ, against prevailing winds, is to actually drop south first (sometimes as low as 40 S), and stay in the lower latitudes until near 150 W. Supposedly, there are westerlies that can carry you the distance, and then make a turn for the north. Although, not one person that I talked to who did the trip had westerlies. It is said and written not to go above 30 S until 150 W. However, sailing at those latitudes guarantees that you suffer through at least one low pressure system. They say that everyone gets at least one.

Just when I thought my anxiety about the passage couldn’t get any higher, the first boat to go (who we know personally) was knocked down and destroyed (separation of the deck from the hull). He had to abandon ship and be rescued. Later, we learned that he managed to keep his boat afloat for 5 days with his EPIRB until a freighter picked him up and returned him Auckland. I continued to watch weather system after weather system, and began to wonder if there would ever be a clear run to the Australs. The next group of boats went, and I finally just got word from one of them. They said it’s not a passage they ever want to repeat. They had many days of 4 meter seas and 30+ kt winds. We weren’t ready to go when they’d gone, and shortly after their departure, there were still quite a few tropical lows forming and moving through. A local Kiwi had remarked that it was still too unsettled out there. I continued to stress.

Then, I got word of a sailing tactic that sparked my interest. Use a low pressure system to sling shot you across part of the distance. In the past, if someone had ever mentioned purposely sailing towards a low pressure system, and through frontal boundaries, I would have said that’s crazy, especially near the Southern Ocean! But now it was all making sense, and I began to see our opportunity develop.

A large low pressure system was gradually approaching NZ, and it would be positioned just right for us to ride the northern edge of the system. Our track was planned, and a possible departure date was set. Then, just as we were getting ready to depart, the low pressure system grew in size and expanded a lot further north. It was huge, BUT it meant we could ride out of NZ on a more northern route, away from being miserably cold. We would immediately head NE and position ourselves for the low.

We had a plan, but I still feared the worst case scenario, as with L’Antillaise. I reviewed heavy weather storm tactics, and we made sure the boat was ready to handle the big stuff. All safety gear was checked. I couldn’t sleep most nights prior to the passage for fear of the worst.

On the morning of our departure, we were the ONLY boat departing from the Whangarei area (and anywhere else, as far as we knew). There was an eerie calm, like the calm before a storm. Our Customs officer asked us if we were sure we wanted to depart. We said yes, and he told us not to hesitate turning back and clearing back into NZ if we changed our minds. (One boat had gone out 2 days prior, and was just returning when we docked that day.) Then, the officer needed a photo of our boat, for search and rescue purposes. My heart couldn’t take it anymore!

Then, one person changed everything for me, for us. An Australian catamaran named Citrus Tart was on the dock next to us, waiting for their weather window to Fiji. We’d become familiar with this boat in Tonga because he won several regattas, and he rode the same low pressure system from Tonga to NZ that Sueño did. We knew he had experience and knowledge. I mentioned the system we were looking at, and he became quite interested. I reviewed my thoughts with him, and he kept nodding. He likes to use low pressure systems, and when he gets that one low dealt to him, he either does a slow run with it, or heaves to. Not a big deal. He doesn’t understand why people get so uptight about this leg. Also, he and his wife enjoy the calms. They don’t motor, except when necessary, and when it’s flat calm, they go for a swim and enjoy a glass of wine while they wait for the wind. We also learned that while he has a fast catamaran, and wins races, he only keeps a 5 knot average on passages. They like to stay comfortable and be good to the boat. I was inspired, and I had a new confidence for what we had chosen to do.

Our plan was put into motion. We had a few days where we could turn around if we needed. However, once the low pressure system arrived in the NZ area, there would be no turning back. North would be our only escape.

As you all know, along with weather input from my Dad and Bob, every day consisted of strategic moves. I’m still amazed at how many low pressure systems came and went. So many times, I’d think of the one we’d have to deal with, but thankfully that time never came. We went against the grain by not staying south of 30 S until 150 W. We went with the wind, made easting when we could. The choice to start a northeast course was a difficult one, but based on knowledge of possible north winds when we’d need to head north, we finally made that early decision. Soon, we found ourselves on a rhumb line for our destination, and were able to hold close to it for the rest of the passage.

Sure, we dealt with many squalls, but nothing we haven’t had before. At every moment, I’d wait for something to go wrong. Sure, we had leaky escape hatches, but we knew how to keep on top of the situation. We also started having an electrical issue, and were looking at a potential battery charging problem . . . which could turn into a VERY serious situation! Wil stayed on top of the battery charging, with the idea of returning to an alternator charge, if need be. This was the first real test of our new autopilot. Would it work for the duration of the passage? I was having “twinges” with my gall bladder for about a week. Would it cause debilitating pain? Would I need air rescue? What would break when we weren’t expecting it?

Then, we received word of catamaran One World, a kid boat we’ve been familiar with since Panama, and the kids had played together in Moorea. About 2 weeks ago, she sunk 20 miles off the coast of Brisbane, Australia, just as they were completing their passage from NZ. Fortunately, the kids were not onboard (the mom and kids usually fly to distant destinations), and the crew was successfully rescued in the middle of the night. We know that the captain and crew are having emotional difficulties, but we don’t know the whole story. THAT was a wake up call to the fact that a passage is not over until it’s over. On the same day, we also got word of another boat we know who was dismasted 400 miles out of Galapagos on their way to Marquesas. Later, we learned of the boats enroute to Tonga and Fiji who had horrible conditions, and many of them ended up stuck in Minerva Reef still having to deal with horrible conditions. Flour Girl had been among those boats, and because their main halyard broke and their main ripped, they continued on towards Fiji, without stopping in Minerva. Meanwhile, we were having the best passage we’d ever had!

Savvy sailors, a good onshore weather/radio team, good sailing tactics, a whole lot of luck, and a guardian angel. With low pressure systems that left us alone, and nasty squalls that would literally split up and go around us, one has to believe we were being looked after. After such an excellent passage, especially one with such a horrible reputation, it would be easy for a person to become overconfident in their abilities. It’s a great feeling to have accomplished such an incredible feat. However, Mother Nature’s oceans must continue to be respected and feared. Without fear, a person can become complacent and careless, resulting in the unthinkable. This passage was not without fear, and it took a lot of courage.

The final relief and joy didn’t come until we’d successfully navigated the reef entrance to the anchorage. Sure, we were excited to see land, and fish alongside the reef as we approached the entrance. But, we still needed to stay on our toes. This was new territory, and things could still go wrong. In fact, our starboard engine didn’t put out water when I first started it as we got close to the reef! Fortunately, we have 2 engines, and it didn’t take long to get water flowing through it again.

We discuss a lot of this with the kids. When we were coming across the Pacific and through French Polynesia the first time, the kids constantly stressed about the passage to NZ. Then, they were pleasantly surprised by how good it was . . . regardless of having fevers, a vertigo-ridden dad, and a non-working autopilot! They’ve learned that we thoroughly study the passages before doing them. They’re learning that anything is possible if you set your mind to it. If they were worried about this passage, it never showed . . . regardless of its reputation and the loss of 2 boats.

So, here we are. Back in French Polynesia, and thrilled to be here. We accomplished the toughest passage of our lives, and now we’re in a country we absolutely love. We’re warm, we’ve had a swim, and this is a beautiful place. The people are extremely warm and friendly, and we have unlimited access to baguettes, pain au chocolat & pamplemousse. While we miss all of our buddy boats, at the same time, we’re looking forward to exploring on our own and enjoying quite a bit of quality family time.

Hoping there are enough radio waves to carry this email to you! 🙂

Jenny & the rest of the crew
At 5/20/2014 10:19 PM (utc) our position was 23°20.50’S 149°28.47’W

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